What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?


Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org we are hosting an ongoing discussion by philosophers of religion about philosophy of religion. Our first blog series asked simply, “What is philosophy of religion?”; and our second series inquired, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” Our third discussion focuses on the values and norms that define excellence in our field. What qualities or characteristics make a work in philosophy of religion worthy of being read, re-read, and criticized by fellow philosophers of religion? What, in fact, do we most admire in the work of others, and what ought we to most admire? Is rigorous argumentation the be-all and end-all of philosophy of religion, or are other values also important, such as multidisciplinarity, adequacy to the diversity of living religions, sensitivity to the existential dimension of religion, etc.?

The norms and values that define excellence in an inquiry not only specify the conditions for successful, progressive inquiry, but also implicitly define the goals of the inquiry itself. Is the purpose of philosophy of religion to explain religious phenomena, to criticize and/or defend religious ideas through argumentation, to gain wisdom about the good life through the study of human religions, or something else? Through an analysis of philosophers’ answers to our question about norms and values, we hope to surface some of the diverse views of the goal of philosophy of religion that are prevalent in the field. Once our analysis of the discussion is complete, we’ll present our findings on this website.

In the meantime, we invite you to read the blog entries and learn from experts who work in the field about the values and norms that define philosophy of religion.

David Rohr is a PhD candidate at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies, and editor of PhilosophyOfReligion.org; Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Jeppe Sinding Jensen on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Jeppe Sinding Jensen is Associate Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at Aarhus University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The question of “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?” really is simple to answer. They cannot be anything other than the same norms and values that underwrite all other academic – philosophical and scientific – pursuits. What else, might we ask, if they are to be housed in the modern university? The problem for the philosophy of religion rather lies, as other blogposts indicate, in the distinction of the object of the ‘of’-relation. What is it that the philosophy of religion is a philosophy ‘of’? Norms and values display and relate degrees of rightness or wrongness in relation to human practices in accordance with given cultural and historically contingent social conventions. However, in the academic world, certain universal and transcendent conditions rule: truth, rightness and honesty must reign. Here, the least one can do is to secure an appropriate coverage of terminology. Thus, the crucial point is what is meant by ‘religion’ – as the meaning of ‘philosophy’ must follow the general usage in and of the modern university. Unfortunately, for the clarity of the discussion, ‘religion’ is a term that covers a fuzzy, if not outright messy, set of concepts. The philosophy of religion, if there is to be one such, must then necessarily follow the usages and insights from the study of religion, studies of religion that must, it should be pointed out, remain and rely on the same epistemic levels and with the same ontological commitments as philosophy in general.

‘What is religion?’ becomes the principal question, then. The many aspects of what we habitually cover by the concept of religion would preclude any stable treatment of the issue. The philosophy of ‘religion’ would necessarily dissolve into philosophies of sociality, semantics, beliefs, emotions, behavior, power, politics and the many other things that may be included in any religious tradition. Looking towards established philosophy of religion, we have been accustomed to what Mark Gardiner recently noted as philosophical reflections on ‘a particular type of belief system, namely Eurocentric abstract monotheism.’ I agree with Gardiner, that with ‘belief’ as the privileged core, the philosophy of religion has been narrow and skewed. Granted, there is a problem (or more) with the rationality of religious belief in the modern world, but that certainly is not the only – nor need it be the dominant – question for a responsible philosophy of religion. Imagine, what would the subject matters be of a hypothetical philosophy of TV? If it focused narrowly on advertising income, or on news presenter hairstyles, important as they may be in some places, we would instantly recognize the missing bits and pieces. Thus, to be brief, I must admit that I can see no other avenue for the philosophy of religion than to develop a broader conception of its own role in the modern university. Just as philosophers of, say, language have the work of linguists and other scholars / scientists as setting the boundary condition for their philosophy of language, so philosophy of religion should be congruent with the study of religion in its fundamental assumptions. This would mean listening to what goes on in the study of religion. However, not everything that goes on in the study of religion need be equally important, or even worth contemplating for philosophers, but many things will be worthy of attention. Here, it is equally notable how the study of religion seems to thrive in the university without serious engagement with philosophical questions. If, and when, practitioners of the study of religion may seem to neglect or disregard philosophical issues and tasks, it may also be because the impressions they get of what philosophy is and does have come from conventional philosophies of religion that appear parochial and one-sided. Contemporary studies of religion stress many aspects other than those relating to truth-issues in religious discourse. Such aspects are the emotional, behavioral, ritual, institutional – to name but some. It follows that the philosophy of religion should be oriented towards those same aspects and be able to assist the scholarly community in clarifying and explaining what philosophical engagements with religion and the study of ‘it’ may contribute to our understanding of these aspects of the human condition. This is what we should and could do. As can be seen from the number of subjunctives here, this little piece is a contribution to a normative discussion, true, but please note that it is a contribution to a discussion of methodological normativity. Thus, the philosophy of religion should not be a contribution to religion, but to philosophy on the one hand and to an understanding of religion on the other. Consequently, the register of normativity must shift from the moral-existential (or outright religious) to the methodological. The first requirement, then, is the distinction of what the philosophy of religion is a philosophy of. If its object is that which we call ‘religion’, then the philosophy of religion would need to heed what goes on in the humanities, in the social and the life sciences in due proportions and take its course according to its current object of reflection or investigation. The philosophy of religion must be nested within philosophies of other and ‘greater’ matters, just like an imagined ‘philosophy of ornithology’ would be embedded in a philosophy of biology in general.

Sonia Sikka on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Sonia Sikka is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa, Canada. We invited her to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Objectivity as an intellectual virtue in the Philosophy of Religion

The virtue of objectivity, understood simply (and vaguely) as an impartial willingness to follow the evidence where it leads, is surely of obvious value for any and every sphere of inquiry. A hermeneutics of suspicion might raise doubts about the possibility of actually achieving such a stance, and of course there are vexing philosophical questions about the nature of truth. But the sense that holding oneself to the regulative ideal of objectivity is an essential prerequisite for arriving at the truth, should it be possible to do so, is fundamental to the self-conception of philosophy, and it is a virtue in which philosophers generally take pride. Bertrand Russell speaks of “the impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth,” connecting this “quality of mind” with justice. Heidegger, whose philosophical methodology otherwise has little in common with Russell’s, expresses a similar sentiment when he argues that a “Christian philosophy” is a contradiction in terms because philosophy is essential questioning. It asks, “why is there something rather than nothing?” whereas for faith, the question is already answered. Nietzsche may be alone among philosophers in questioning the value of an objective pursuit of truth, but even he does not maintain this stance consistently. It is hard to mistake the note of pride in his suggestion that, while complete knowledge may destroy a person, “the strength of a spirit” should be measured by “how much truth he can endure,” or how much he needs to have that truth diluted, sweetened and falsified.

Religion is especially, for Nietzsche, the expression of weak spirits who cannot take the truth. This idea that religion is an error produced and sustained by desire – an “illusion” in Freud’s sense of that term – is by now a commonplace in both popular and academic discourses. Fear of meaninglessness and especially of death is often taken to be the ultimate explanation for religious projections, echoing Feuerbach’s proposal that “the grave of man is the birthplace of the gods.” One should be careful, though, of committing what I have taken to calling the nihilistic fallacy, supposing that if a belief is disconsoling, it is ipso facto true. This subtle bias is typical of a certain modern attitude, whose rhetoric often betrays pride in one’s own capacity to endure the cold, hard truth whereas weaker spirits must cling to comforting illusions. It sometimes informs discourse favoring “naturalism,” as opposed to belief in the “supernatural,” something of which no self-respecting, scientifically-minded and rigorous, philosopher wants to be accused (though a genuinely rigorous analysis needs to pose hard questions, I feel, about the meanings of interdependent terms such as “natural” and “supernatural”).

Yet, with this caveat, philosophy should be essential questioning rather than confessional apologetics, and there are credible concerns about whether the current shape of the philosophy of religion truly is that. The dominant topics and structure of this subfield tend to reveal its origins as a descendent of Christian theology, continuing to follow the model of “faith seeking understanding,” Anselm’s motto in a distant age. John Schellenberg has pointed to the dominance of conservative Christian theologians within the field, suggesting that their approach is often not philosophy at all but Christian apologetics using the tools of philosophy. To be sure, one cannot legitimately dismiss arguments merely because they are presented by someone who happens to be a believer. It would also be naïve to suppose that anyone who enters a philosophical debate on a topic they care about is ever entirely neutral towards possible conclusions. We all have our sympathies. But starting with a bundle of “truths” that one is committed to defending no matter what hardly represents the virtue of objectivity, and seems an untrustworthy route for arriving at the most plausible beliefs about ultimate reality, death, or evil, among the other issues with which the philosophy of religion typically engages. If one should not overestimate the difference, in practice, between faith seeking understanding and open-ended philosophical questioning, one should also not collapse it.

Personally, I have found the practice of teaching philosophy of religion to be the best education in objectivity. Trying year after year to perform the delicate balancing act of being respectful and kind to students coming from an enormous variety of perspectives, while at the same time encouraging thoughtful and critical reflection, provides a rare exercise in seeing, not without interest but with many and different eyes (Nietzsche’s interpretation of the closest we can come to “objectivity”). To some extent, this is true of all teaching, but philosophy of religion is different. The subject evokes strong passions stemming from beliefs that are constitutive of people’s identities, from the extremes of devout faith to militant atheism, with individuals at opposite ends finding it pretty much equally painful (in my experience) to take counterarguments seriously. It is impossible not to be intellectually shaped by the practice of repeatedly negotiating this context, under the pedagogical self-discipline of holding to values that are in the first place actually social rather than epistemic. I want to promote civility while not being perceived as favoring any student or set of students over others. I want to present counter-arguments without setting myself up as an adversary or opponent. I want also, in this subject more than in others I teach, to be compassionate, given the depths of the feelings and sensitivities at stake. Whatever conclusions I may come to on metaphysical questions, I would never want to treat lightly the refusal of tragedy and longing for meaning that motivates many (though not all) religious beliefs.

No doubt perfect “objectivity” in a field like this one is unachievable, supposing that such an ideal is even intelligible. But if it is possible, in our classrooms, to consider with equal charity the views of believers and atheists and those in between – including thoughtful seekers trying to discover what is most plausible in a piecemeal fashion rather than committing themselves to one or another of those bundles of belief-and-practice that we call “religions” – then there is no reason why we cannot do the same in our scholarship.

Robert Nola on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Robert Nola is Professor of Philosophy at University of Auckland, New Zealand. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The question to be addressed is: “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” There are many distinct areas within philosophy which concern themselves with special ‘philosophy of X’ topics where X can be mathematics, science, history, social facts, morals, and the like. In so far as these are philosophies of …, they will all, hopefully, exemplify the same values and norms which apply to philosophy itself (whatever these be). But the question also raises the possibility as to whether there is, for some X, some particular values or norms which are dependent on the kind of X considered and which do not apply to some other philosophy of Y or philosophy of Z. So, are there some particular norms or values in the case of philosophy of religion which do not arise in the case of, say, philosophy of science, or mathematics?

Consider ontological matters. These arise when for example, we consider philosophy of mathematics and ask whether or not there exists mathematical entities such as numbers (to which mathematical Platonism answers ‘yes’, but constructivism and various kinds of anti-realist stance can be taken to say ‘no’). Again matters of epistemology arise when we ask what knowledge of mathematical entities we can have, given that we do not have immediate epistemic access to them. For the Platonist this is a problem, but for anti-realists this is not such a large problem since there are no such entities to which we need to have any epistemic access. Finally consider logical matters. Logic is at the core of philosophy and would be part of any philosophy of X that deserves to be called ‘philosophy of …’. If philosophy of religion were to ignore the values and norms of logic its viability would be undermined (as has often been the case).

Similarly in religion, entities like God or gods or souls or spirits are postulated and we need to know, within the philosophy of religion, what answer can be given to the ontological question about God’s existence and what answer can be given to matters concerning their epistemic access. For the theist these are problems, but for the atheist these problems do not arise. In fact faulty ontology or epistemology provides weapons for the critique of much philosophy of religion.

These considerations give support to the view that in philosophy of religion there are no special values and norms which apply to it but not any other philosophy of X. There may be distinctively important questions to pose and answer within philosophy of religion; but answering them ought to employ the values and norms found in ontology, epistemology, logic and other areas of philosophy.

For atheists (e.g., scientific materialists) ontological questions within the philosophy of religion have a negative answer; none of its postulated entities exist. Religion is a vast error theory (to employ a term of John Mackie). However atheists do agree that there are still important questions to address concerning religion. God does not exist but there is still the matter of accounting for why people have commonly believed that God (or gods) exists. Thus Hume in his 1757 The Natural History of Religion looks to the perilous existential conditions of human existence as a cause of human belief that God(s) exists; and he also adopts the view that God is some kind of projection onto the world. In his 1841 The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach is more explicitly projectionist. But the God we humans project onto the world as existing is to be understood non-realistically; God does not exist independently of our projection of him. In the 20th century an important Humean influence can be found in the work of the anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, who proposes, in his 1993 book Faces in the Clouds: ‘… religion may best be understood as systematic anthropomorphism: the attribution of human characteristics to non-human things or events’. This is a suggestive research programme which should accord with the norms and values of any empirically based science (but not necessarily religion or its philosophy). This is particularly so when the sciences of anthropology or sociology are applied to religion.

Hume’s posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion largely considers arguments concerning the existence of God; he takes a dim view of their success (many in the philosophy of religion have yet to learn this from Hume). The Dialogues are often taken to be paradigm cases of good, critical, philosophical arguments applied to problems within the philosophy of religion. Addressing matters of argument has continued within 20th century philosophy of religion. If philosophy of religion is to survive as a subject it must employ the best resources of contemporary forms of reasoning developed within philosophy such as inference to the best explanation, probabilistic reasoning, decision theory, and the like.

But alongside this, the last 50 years or so has seen a rapid growth in scientific studies of religion which bypass the traditional approach to religion based upon philosophy. Their aim is to draw upon the values and norms of science (and not philosophy) in explaining matters, such as why people believe in gods, the neurological basis of “religious” experiences (such as near-death experiences, or out-of-body experiences), the nature of spirituality, a naturalistic approach to Godless morality, and the like. These studies can be seen as complementing our understanding of religion and the problems traditionally addressed in philosophy of religion. But they can also be seen as undermining and debunking much of religion and its accompanying philosophy. It debunks because it exposes as erroneous many traditional explanatory accounts of religion which appeal to a divine God. In so doing it proposes a rival naturalistic account of how religious beliefs come about which then replaces traditional religion and its philosophy.

Earlier in the 20th century Freud, a committed atheist, proposed that the causes of religious belief were to be found in “psychiatric delusions” such as unfulfilled wishes for a providential “father” figure to guide us through the vicissitudes of adult life. Freud took himself to be giving a scientific account of aspects of religion – but of course his psychological hypothesis needs to be subject to test by the methods of science. Freud is also a debunker of religion who took a dim view of the attempts by advocates of the philosophy of religion to maintain religion in some way; they ‘try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rear-guard actions’ (Civilization and its Discontents Part II).

Perhaps one of the strongest challenges to traditional philosophy of religion comes from the account of religious belief to be found within the theory of evolution. Darwin had suggested in his The Descent of Man that there is a general propensity for humans to attribute agency to ordinary happenings (like storms, volcanic activity, etc) and that this readily passes into a belief in God or gods as unseen agents. This has served as a basis for recent theorizing within cognitive psychology about the evolution of agent detection devices which were initially directed upon the predatory agents with which our ancestors had to cope in order to survive. So there is postulated to be, in our minds, a hypersensitive agency detection device, given the acronym ‘HADD’. The processes of evolution along with other cognitive developments (such as language use and story-telling), turns HADD into an important evolutionary by-product which acquires the new role of postulating agents quite generally, such agents being a God, or gods. Again the postulation of HADD is a matter which has been given much attention to determine its scientific credentials.

In addition there is research within the theory of evolution which is outside cognitive psychology. It looks, for example, at cooperation within social groups and the role which the belief in God(s) can play in maintaining and even enhancing societies. See for example, Dominic Johnson’s God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes us Human (2016) and Ara Norenzayan Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (2013). Once again belief in God is important; whether there is a God of traditional philosophy of religion drops out of consideration. The topics covered in these books are an important part of current research within the scientific study of religion.

All of these studies are part of a naturalized approach to religion in which religion is no longer taken at its face value, as in traditional philosophical approaches. Rather the studies are part of the extension of science to the field of religion (critics would dub this as being “scientistic”). Given the same length of time in which philosophy has been an accompaniment to religion (from the Ancient Greeks onwards), it will be interesting to see the challenges which science will bring to religion and how much of it will survive (in my view not much). As matters currently stand, many of the above hypotheses need to have a proper scientific basis in testing; without this they will fall by the wayside as merely historically interesting speculations. But it is in this way that a scientific basis for religious belief will emerge from the processes of scientific development and testing. Such a process of conjecture and refutation marks an important difference between religious and many philosophical approaches to belief in God and the scientific approach.

The original question asked was about the norms and values which apply to philosophy of religion. If it does not adopt the same standards to be found within philosophy then it is a lost subject, no better than dogmatic belief. However the consideration of religion from a philosophical viewpoint is very narrowly confined. The application of the norms and values of science opens up quite new perspectives on religion and the role it has played in human existence. For too long religion and its philosophy have escaped this kind of critical scrutiny. It is a moot question as to whether either will survive this scrutiny.

Michael Almeida on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Michael Almeida is Professor of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Methods, Norms, and Values in Philosophy of Religion

Methodology in the philosophy of religion, with few exceptions, has not received much discussion.1 It is a common methodology—but not one that is especially self-conscious—to approach the broad range of issues that characterize philosophy of religion with what we might call vastly overconfident aprioricity. John Mackie illustrates this method. Mackie approaches the problem of evil with a striking degree of confidence in our a priori knowledge of the traditional attributes of God. He writes: ‘. . . in its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false.’2 Perhaps as famously, Mackie boldly declares that ‘any adequate solution’ to his version of the problem of evil must abandon the proposition that God is omnipotent, or abandon the proposition that God is wholly good, or abandon the proposition that there exists evil. It’s out of the question for Mackie that, on the contrary, we might doubt his a priori intuitions about the concept of omnipotence or perfect goodness. It’s bizarrely regarded as out of the question to suggest that these intuitions might be mistaken or not especially well-informed. The idea that we might propose an alternative analysis of, say, omnipotence, Mackie relegates to the bin of fallacious solutions.

Mackie is not alone. We find a similar degree of confidence in J. Howard Sobel’s discussion of the problem of evil. Sobel considers the concept of omnipotence to be fully determinable a priori.

Rather than practice the doctrine of Humpty Dumpty on ‘omnipotence’ and ordinary synonyms of it such as ‘almightiness’, I have tried to call a spade a spade, and having done that to defend the possibility of ‘omnipotence’ naturally understood. Questions concerning omnipotence—what it comes to and whether it is possible—are properly prior to questions of God and omnipotence.3

Indeed, Sobel is critical of Plantinga’s departure from this straightforward apriori method.

Plantinga suggests that we may, without answers to the first general question about omnipotence, shift in reasonable hope of doing better to the second particular question of ‘God’s omnipotence.’ After finding difficulties with two definitions of omnipotence, he says: ‘But perhaps . . . even if we cannot give a general explanation of omnipotence, we may be able to say what God is omnipotent comes to.’ This methodology complicates matters and is strange.4

The approach of Mackie and Sobel is not uncommon among philosophers of religion—even if not everyone is as bold. The main problem with the excessively confident apriori method is that it simply ignores the phenomenon of ‘metaphysical surprise’. Surprising metaphysical facts—otherwise occluded facts—are typically revealed when we apply familiar concepts in unfamiliar contexts. It is an otherwise occluded metaphysical fact that moral perfection is consistent with not fulfilling every moral requirement. How could such a fact be revealed? Consider an essentially morally perfect being facing a necessary moral dilemma. Moral dilemmas—including necessary moral dilemmas—are such that, no matter what a moral agent does, she does something wrong. Such dilemmas arise in cases where, for instance, there is no best possible world, and they are structurally equivalent to rational dilemmas.5 A morally perfect being could find itself in a necessary moral dilemma.6

It is a similarly occluded metaphysical fact that omniscience is consistent with not knowing every true proposition. The fact is revealed in the unfamiliar context of an omniscient being facing indeterminate propositions—propositions that are true, but not definitely true. It’s of course an open question whether God could know indefinitely true propositions.7

To offer a few more examples, it is an otherwise occluded metaphysical fact that—contrary to almost every version of the cosmological argument—there is no observational evidence that there are any contingent explananda at all. For that matter, there is no observational evidence that there are any impermanent objects or non-enduring properties. These metaphysical facts are revealed when considering whether we inhabit a Spinozistic or permanentist world. If some contemporary multiverse theories are correct, our world is indeed Spinozistic, though not quite Spinoza’s world. On some exotic—though well-defended—views of basic modal principles, ours is also a necessitarian, permanentist world.8 There is just no way to know any of this through the excessively confident apriori method. Whether there are any contingent explananda at all depends on larger ontological commitments that are not a matter of observation. The overconfident a priori method is completely unhelpful here.

The methodological moral we ought to draw is that recent advances in metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and value theory—and there are lots of them—really should inform any a priori intuition we might advance in the philosophy of religion. Uninformed, commonsense intuitions—the kinds of intuitions that Mackie and Sobel frankly offer—are not especially helpful or reliable. Common answers to questions raised in the philosophy of religion depend on—more or less conscious—ontological commitments. Does the Free Will Defense depend on the existence of libertarian free will? No, it doesn’t, but free will defenders hardly ever get around to questioning libertarian free will. Does the problem of modal collapse depend on actualist ontologies? Yes it does, but the case against modal collapse never gets around to questioning actualist ontologies. Must cosmological explananda include change or motion or coming to be or contingency? Not at all. But we never get around to noticing that our world might not genuinely include any of these. The methodological moral is perhaps obvious, but it is much neglected. And that is perhaps due to the steep climb involved in coming to terms with so much philosophical work before we come to terms with problems in the philosophy of religion.

Donald Blakeley on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Donald Blakeley is emeritus professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno and adjunct lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The norms that characterize excellent philosophy of religion are usually thought to be the norms that characterize philosophy as a discipline. Since philosophy may function in constructive system-building (speculative, worldview) ways as well as critical or analytical ways, two different but overlapping sets of norms are generally observed.

The constructive (system-building) work includes explanations about the nature of reality, knowledge, human nature, the good life, and the good society. The norms would include clarity, comprehensiveness, adequacy, precision, coherence, consistency and the capacity to defend what is being maintained.

Norms of analytic work include attention to logical principles and fallacies in reasoning (argument, justification), attention to semiotic (syntactic, semantic, pragmatic) functions in communication, and the investigation of the meaning of particular (or clusters) of concepts wherever these may occur, including the nature of their referential intention.

What today are identified as religions (or, more generally, spiritual options for living) have developed their own distinctive philosophical commitments involving assumptions, sources, methods, norms and goals. As components of a religion, these religious philosophies themselves have their own standards and provide the subject matter for independent (etic) philosophical investigation, i.e., philosophy of religion. Philosophy functions comparably in other fields as philosophy of science, history, et al.

If philosophy on its own strives for the wisdom to understand (intellectually) and achieve a well-functioning life (practically), religions want more. Assurance is desired that some ultimate reality will serve as the foundation for meaning and value and function as a resource to fulfill human needs and aspirations. The terminus has many names: God/Allah, Brahman, Dao, the One, Taiji, sunyata, Waheguru, supreme mystery, and numerous others. Common human issues such as death, justice, freedom, self, time, truth, and love have a place and meaning determined by the individual religious philosophy.

The conceptual structures (belief systems) vary greatly. Each involve the cultivation of subtle and complex sensibilities expressed in various practices. Their ideas and values operate within a specific linguistic and cultural history. A philosophical analyst should be attentive to and carefully track the distinctive “logic” and language employed by a religion, the way its concerns actually operate. Testing the viability of religions can benefit the distinctive efforts of both philosophy and religion.

This task, daunting as it may be, is especially so when attempting to engage in comparative analysis of religion(s). A wider perspective, however, decreases the hazards of parochial or sectarian analysis. In the West, philosophy of religion has focused mainly on monotheisms. As a matter of fair and informed analysis today, it must acknowledge and operate in the context of religious diversity, becoming familiar with the constructive and analytic resources of non-Western perspectives.

The role of authority assumed in religions, resting on materials (texts, etc.), special persons, or historical occurrences, is conferred because the sources provide access to what is considered to be experientially edifying. The beliefs advocated are assumed to be true and right because they confirm what is fundamentally real and of utmost value. Philosophy of religion challenges such claims not with anti-religious bias but as a matter defined by principles of responsible thinking.

The roles of reason, belief, and justification in each religion have an important and distinctive place. Reasoning is a part of any religion, even as its competence is assessed differently in religions. Beliefs of some kind are needed to guide thinking and action. Reasoning functions to make clear basic commitments and their implications—even as studies show that much decision-making is influenced by other forces. Being religious involves adopting ideas and values, encouraging the establishment of dispositions to think, feel, and act. Beliefs without rational or empirical warrant, based on faith or conviction, simply beg questions that need to be addressed. Such should not be considered meritorious.

Religion cannot be limited to arguments nor can the value of intuition, feelings, emotions, and hopes be dismissed. Since interpretation is unavoidable and because much is at stake, critical analysis should not be sidelined. Even when the very capacity to reason is taken to be limited and fallible, there needs nevertheless to be reasons against reasons, arguments against arguments. Believing to generate an experience that will confirm a belief itself requires further evidence, expertise in the dynamics of belief formation, confirmation bias, and so on.

When a religion says: “Engage in these practices and stop thinking,” etc., this injunction itself depends on beliefs about the importance of such advice. In this sense, there are no religions without beliefs. Claims like “Reason is the devil, a whore, an obstacle, a deceptive distraction,” etc., would depend on reasons and beliefs to make intelligible the position advocated. Judgments about the inadequacies of reason have led to the advocacy of trans-reasoning (faith, passion) or anti-reasoning (“because it is absurd”) or no-reasoning (“empty the mind”) positions, the consequences of which deserve careful consideration.

Religions depend on their own relatively autonomous identity which secures their character and immunizes them from outside (philosophical, scientific, and other) disturbances. This can lead to religious exclusivism where only one religion is true or religious inclusivism where one religion (or perspective on religions) weighs other religions as being of lesser value than the true religion, or to religious plurality (perhaps relativism) where all religions have their truth and value in their own way for those who need and benefit from them.

Because of unprecedented contact in media today, dealing with religious diversity is imperative. Any serious encounter with practitioners of religious worldviews cannot help but be impressed by the thoughtful and heartfelt devotion to the realization of common human aspirations. As important as this is, however, it is limited. The contact and sharing in respectful ways function in very different ideological contexts, with different rationales and destinations.

These comments indicate operational norms typical of philosophy of religion. The place of critical thinking, doubting, standards of evidence, verification, and justification varies in religions, but it has been an essential part of philosophy.

Current challenges for philosophy of religion today include ongoing considerations about the interface between epistemology and metaphysics (or ontology). Post-Kantian responses seen in existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, pragmatism, and ongoing debates between realists, anti-realists, new realists and others have important implications for religious philosophies which depend on realist assumptions.

Outside philosophy and religion, evolutionary neuroscience, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and other developments are challenging traditional understandings of the meanings and assumed mechanisms that support religious and philosophical ways of knowing and living. This new environment raises serious questions about how to interpret reality, human nature, self-identity, values, and social-political affairs. It challenges the assumptions made by religions that they can provide answers to the big questions and supply remedies for the needs of humanity that are not otherwise available.

Stanley Tweyman on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Stanley Tweyman is University Professor of Humanities and Graduate Philosophy at York University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Hume’s Excellence regarding the Cosmological – Ontological Proof of God’s Existence.

In this blog, I propose to examine one of David Hume’s criticisms of the Cosmological – Ontological proof of God’s existence, a criticism which I will show is decisive against this argument.

First, the argument. Any object that currently exists is related causally to a chain or succession of objects which extends back to infinity. Demea (the one who presents this argument) argues that, although particular members in the chain or succession can be accounted for by reference to earlier members in the chain, nevertheless, two questions remain unanswered: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, and “Why does this particular succession of causes exist rather than some other, or no succession at all?” Demea contends that these are legitimate causal questions, which can only be answered by making a modal leap. Since no contingent being can account for the eternal (backward) chain of causes and effects (any such contingent being would be a member of the succession and, therefore, part of the problem), and since we cannot explain the chain through either Chance (chance for Hume means no cause, and Demea regards this as meaningless, and, therefore, unintelligible) or Nothing (ex nihilo nihil fuit), Demea concludes that we can explain the infinite or eternal succession only by having recourse to “a necessarily existent Being, who carries the REASON of his existence in himself; and who cannot be supposed not to exist without an express contradiction” (D. 149). According to Demea, therefore, the eternally contingent must be grounded in the eternally necessary.

I now turn to the criticism of this argument, which I regard as decisive:

“Add to this, that in tracing an eternal success of objects, it seems absurd to enquire for a general cause or first author. How can any thing, that exists from eternity, have a cause, since that relation implies a priority in time and a beginning of existence?” (D.150).

As everyone knows, Hume is adamant that we never understand the powers of objects through which they act as causes of certain effects. Hume is equally adamant that designating an object as a cause, and another as effect, requires seeing objects of those types constantly conjoined. In one respect, constant conjunction assists us by generating the habit or determination of the mind, so that we naturally associate the cause with the effect (this, in the language of the Treatise, is causality as a ‘natural relation’). In so far as causality is viewed as a ‘philosophical relation’ (once again, utilizing the language of the Treatise), the importance of constant conjunction is this: even though we lack any insight into causal power, the constant conjunction between objects convinces us of the causal relevancy of one object to another. The powers of the first object, although unknown, appear to be directed to the production of, or a change in, the second object.

Applying this analysis of the importance of constant conjunction to ascriptions of causality to our discussion, we can understand the full weight of Cleanthes’/ Hume’s criticism in the eighth paragraph of Part 9. The most useful way of developing what I have to say here is to revisit Demea’s argument, at the point at which he seeks to answer the questions: why is there something rather than nothing; and why does this particular succession of causes exist from all eternity rather than some other, or no succession at all? As we have seen in the second paragraph above, Demea offers four possible explanations. The elimination of the first three, he urges, leaves us with the fourth: the only reasonable explanation as to why there is something rather than nothing, and why there is what there is rather than something else, is that a necessarily existent being exists, who is the cause of the world, as we know it.

But this is where Demea errs, given Cleanthes’ criticism in paragraph 8 of Part 9. Given the Cleanthean/ Humean account of causality, establishing a necessarily existent being as the cause of the eternal chain of causes and effects would require the observation of constant conjunction between this being and the causal chain – this is required in order to establish the causal relevancy of the existence of the one to the production and existence of the other. Since this requirement cannot be satisfied, Cleanthes is arguing that we cannot establish that a necessarily existent being is the cause of the eternal chain of causes and effects, even if the chain and its members are contingent, and even if we have eliminated the other three putative causes.

We can develop Cleanthes’ criticism even further. Assume for the moment that we already know (i.e. independently of Demea’s argument) that a necessary being exists, and that the eternal chain of causes is contingent. Following Cleanthes’ criticism in paragraph 8, which focuses on the role of constant conjunction, it would still be impossible for us, using Demea’s premises, to show that one is causally relevant or responsible for the other. Each would exist in a manner which appears to be incompatible with its having been caused. What exists in what we call the world might someday cease to exist, and in this respect, we might be tempted to say that what exists exists contingently. But even if this is true, Cleanthes/ Hume has established that the eternity of the world, at least in terms of its not having had a beginning, prevents us from proving that it was caused to exist. Accordingly, it may be the case that the eternal causal chain of which Demea speaks is contingent and uncaused, or at least from an epistemological point of view, must be so regarded.

Hume holds that his first argument against the Cosmological – Ontological Argument (concerning the non – demonstrability of existential statements) is “entirely decisive”, and he is “willing to rest the entire controversy upon it” (D.149). My point in this blog is that Hume understates the force of subsequent criticisms of this argument, inasmuch as at least one of these additional criticisms is decisive.

Clayton Crockett on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Clayton Crockett is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

For me, values are contextual and relative to practice, rather than universal or apodictic. Norms and values that work best for philosophy of religion are shared with more general academic practices and disciplines, including critical thinking, rigorous scholarship, contribution to knowledge, and openness to alternative perspectives. Most academics, including philosophers of religion, desire that their work benefit society as a whole, but also understand the need to bracket such commitments at least in part for the sake of the integrity of their work. Philosophy of religion is not restricted to the academy, but it functions mainly in institutions connected to higher education.

The more specific values of philosophy of religion then pertain to the two terms, philosophy and religion. Philosophy is a more established discipline in the contemporary academy, although there remain many arguments and disputes about the best methodology and practice of philosophy. The predominant major language of philosophy is Anglo-analytic, although analytic philosophy is not so much an object of commitment as a heuristic language and tool to analyze, evaluate and argue about philosophical concepts. I claim that philosophy functions best when it operates in an environment of plurality that understands and affirms diverse languages and methods of theoretical reflection.

In the modern world, religion generally functions in tension with rational explanation, so a philosophy of religion is charged with explaining the unexplainable, at least apparently. Furthermore, academic religious studies is not a discipline, but rather an inter- or multi-disciplinary field of study. Religion as an object of philosophical (or any other disciplinary methodological) focus can easily be reduced and re-described in terms that are foreign to it. The challenge is to acknowledge both the complexity of the theoretical-philosophical analysis, as well as the complexity of the phenomenon that is being studied. For traditional analytic philosophy of religion, the preposition ‘of’ may function to colonize religion for the sake of philosophical understanding in a way that distorts the integrity of religion as an object of investigation.

In more Continental or existential terms, philosophy may risk going native, because it attempts to do justice to religion as religion, and expresses it in conceptual categories without reducing it to philosophical analysis. Some forms of Continental philosophy of religion operate essentially as religion or religious discourse, and fail to clearly demarcate the lines between philosophy of religion and religion as such. Here the challenge is to adopt and apply a clear philosophical methodology and rigor for defining, interpreting and understanding religion.

What is religion? The most common etymologies involve recourse to the Latin word religio, which in turn is related to religare, to re-bind, or relegere, to re-read. I propose that we consider both of these potential origins as a specific kind of relation. Relation, however, is not a repetition of an original action or lation. Relation is how we relate, or the ways in which we are implicated, enfolded, or entangled in phenomena. If we think about religion as a certain form of relation, then we can reflect on what religion shows or tells us about relations in general. Relations are connections, but they can also serve to disconnect. Religions connect and disconnect, in myriad ways.

We might say that religion tries to diagnose a problem or a disease that makes it harder to live in harmony with the ultimate reality in ontological or ethical terms. If there is a diagnosis, there must also be a prescription, whether or not a complete cure is possible, so there must be some things that religion proposes that humans can do to restore a healthier or more harmonious relationship. Relations, relationships, and religions change, which is both an obstacle and an opportunity. Nothing stays the same, at least in this world. How do relationships change their terms, and are there any things that exist prior to relations? These questions and reflections hopefully contribute to how we conceive of a good relationship, and address the question of what it means to live together.

This is an abstract language of relations and relationships that I am deploying to think about religion. There is no natural, neutral philosophical language in which to write about religion, or anything else for that matter. Words are not safe. Sometimes philosophers and other scholars of religion are tempted to regionalize religion, while universalizing philosophy or whatever methodological academic discourse is considered most effective. But religion is as universal and ontological as anything else, which means that it does not simply fit neatly within the parameters of any conceptual categorization.

For these reasons, I contend that awareness of complexity, humility, open-mindedness, creativity, and appreciation of novelty are as vital to the practice of philosophy of religion as conceptual analysis, honesty, clarity, and rigor. Along with our commitment to critical reflection, we need to be open to learning new things, not just new information about religion, but new modes of philosophical activity, appreciation, and understanding regarding what we conceive as religious. Our values change in relation to others(’). If we are sensitive to these transformations, we can aspire to excellence in the philosophy of religion.

Nancy K. Frankenberry on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Nancy K. Frankenberry is John Phillips Professor of Religion, Emeritus at Dartmouth College. We invited her to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Epistemological questions constitute an important part of the traditional agenda for philosophy of religion. With the advent of gender studies, however, non-traditional questions have come to the fore. What has the status of knowledge in various religious traditions? What gets valorized as worth knowing? What are the criteria evoked? Who has the authority to establish religious meaning? Is religious meaning something distinct from or independent of ordinary linguistic meanings of words? Who is the presumed subject of religious belief? How does the social position of the subject affect the content of religious belief? What is the impact upon religious life of the subject’s sexed body? What do we learn by examining the relations between power, on the one hand, and what counts as evidence, foundations, modes of discourse, forms of apprehension and transmission, on the other? In view of the intimate connection of power/knowledge, how do we handle the inevitable occlusion that attends all knowledge production? What particular processes constitute the normative cultural subject as masculine in its philosophical and religious dimensions?

I answer such questions from the far country called “feminist,” a region seldom visited by mainstream philosophers of religion, at least those in the Anglo-American tradition. Yet the development of feminist philosophies of religion remains an urgent part of our agenda. I say “part” of the agenda in order to recognize Kimberlé Grenshaw’s point about intersectionality: that there are overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination due not only to gender, but also to ethnicity, sexuality, and economic and religious background. Attempting to do justice to multiple axes at once can be exhausting, and perhaps that is why most philosophers of religion repair so readily to the highly abstract and rarified regions of metaphilosophy when they discuss norms and criteria for evaluation in our field.

Without the category of gender firmly recognized as a crucial ideological barometer of both past and present, of the philosophical and religious texts we read and of the ones we as philosophers of religion then write, philosophy of religion will slide back into its traditional, monologically male vision of things, regressing into a less problematic, pre-feminist world that conservative voices have lately tried to recuperate by proclaiming that contemporary theory has now entered the happy haven of a “post-feminist era.” Like its mythical twin the “post-racial era,” this phrase has meaning but no reference.

Standard norms and criteria such as coherence, consistency, evidential warrant, adequacy to experience, clarity, simplicity, cogency, and plausibility, do not get lost in feminist philosophies of religion; they remain critically important for showing and protecting whatever objectively-valid claims we may make. But feminist work in our field does require, among other things, a “principle of concretion,” by which I mean something other than Whitehead’s idea of God. A principle of concretion is needed to move from the level of abstract generality to the level of concrete particularity. Both levels of analysis are valuable, but which is more inclusive? My suggestion is that the concrete includes the abstract and exceeds it in value. For example, we might extract the following abstract generalities from the philosophy of Donald Davidson: 1) rationality pertains to anything that has a mind; 2) the constraints of rationality pertain to the conditions necessary for both mind and interpretation; 3) thought requires that we have the concept of error, of making a mistake; 4) thought presumes the concept of objective reality and of truth; 5) therefore, general skeptical claims are unintelligible, even if specific claims can be doubted; 6) communication with others is required and a shared world of objects in a common time and space; 7) knowledge emerges holistically and is interpersonal from the start. Moving from the abstract rule-based general constraints enumerated in 1-7, feminist inquiry then asks about the concrete particularity of the exercise of rationality, the gendered aspects of having a mind, the various ways in which gender norms differentially structure the religious spaces to which men and women are admitted, the presentation of self to others, etc. etc. One can imagine such concretion unfolding with copious narrative detail at the concrete, empirical level. It is not so much that rationality has a gender as that any agent who applies reason is gendered. The point is to scrutinize the gendered values that constitute our epistemic practices by attending to the concrete as much as to the abstract, and to the inextricable interrelatedness of the two.

What difference does the difference of gender make? More than anything else, it serves to orient philosophy of religion to affirming immanence, rather than to escaping finitude, embodiment, and materiality. I have space to mention but two leading authors. The work of Pamela Sue Anderson (1955-2017) was governed by the double imperative: “to think from the lives of others” and “to reinvent ourselves as other.” She articulated a feminist philosophy of religion around three central theoretical elements: feminist standpoint epistemology, inspired by Sandra Harding’s feminist philosophy of science; bell hook’s central concept of “yearning” as a cognitive act of creative and just memory; and the Spinozist dimensions of Michele Le Doeuff’s form of rationalism. Together, these themes ensured that social locatedness was always prominent in Anderson’s work, that yearning and all it stood for motivated her struggle in the search for personal communal justice, and that no personal, male-gendered deity was implied, yet a creative corporeality was at work in the very exercise of reason, giving rise to a new form of reasoned thinking which has God or Nature (deus sive natura) as its ground.

Indeed, for Pamela Anderson yearning is the vital reality of human life that gives rise to religious belief, and rationality based on creative corporeality belongs at the heart of feminist philosophy of religion. Therefore, philosophical analysis of and feminist concern with reason combined with desire, as found in expressions of yearning for truth whether epistemological, ethical (justice), or aesthetic (love or beauty), need to supplement standard approaches to philosophy of religion.

With a different regard for the place of rationality, Grace Jantzen (1948-2006) argued that feminist philosophies of religion should forego the preoccupation with the rational justification of beliefs and the evaluation of truth-claims. Inspired mainly by French continental philosophy, Jantzen constructed a philosophy of religion built on natality and birth. For her, the “path of desire to/for the divine” opened up the symbolic impact of birth rather than death as a strategy for creating a new imaginary construct that emphasizes flourishing of life rather than sacrifice of it. The norms of ethical or political adequacy can perfectly well supplement, if not replace, those of epistemic adequacy. Jantzen proposed nothing less than a new imaginary of religion, a feminist symbolic of “natality and flourishing” as an alternative to the category of mortality, verging on necrophilia/necrophobia, with which the western tradition has been saturated. Influenced by Hannah Arendt’s work on natality and Adriana Cavarero’s feminist reading of Plato, Jantzen believed that a preoccupation with death and violence subtends the masculinist imaginary. If feminist philosophy of religion is ever to transform the symbolic order that inscribes this imaginary, it is necessary to change the imaginary. For this purpose, she thought that a model of transformative change drawn from psychoanalysis and Continental philosophy of religion was more useful than a model drawn from Anglo-American adversarial modes of argumentation.

The Western symbolic, long saturated with violence and death, is epitomized in the crucified Christ. Sacrificial codes involve a forgetting/erasure of the complex role of the maternal, amounting to a “matricide” at the foundation of religious practice. The central figure of the western cultural imaginary is the unmourned and unacknowledged sacrifice of the (m)other’s body that Christianity masks under the Eucharistic sacrifice of the son. The real symbolic association, then, according to Jantzen, is not between women and birth, but between women and death, setting up men as cultural masters over and above mortality and its intimations in the bodies of women.

The provocations that the work of Anderson, Jantzen, and other feminist philosophers of religion have contributed over the course of several decades now demand to be addressed in the new agendas and manifestos appearing from Wesley Wildman, Kevin Shilbrack, Thomas A. Lewis, and Timothy Knepper.

Aleksander S. Santrac on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Aleksander S. Santrac is Professor of Ethics and Philosophy and Chair of Religion and Philosophy Dept. at Washington Adventist University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion is the branch of philosophy that explores the variety of religious phenomena including the idea or the concept of God and its relationship to reason or common sense. Though “philosophizing about religion” cannot be easily explained I believe that the primary goal of philosophy of religion is to look closely at existing religious worldviews and traditions, rigorously investigating the traditional arguments for God’s existence, the problem of evil, religion and science, and justifications for the existence of religious pluralism, to name a few. Philosophy of religion is, of course, one of the most comprehensive areas of philosophy for it includes studies in logic, epistemology, ethics, science, etc. It is also intellectually challenging and rewarding at the same time. The basic questions of philosophy—like where are we coming from? or where are we going?—are investigated through the question of origins or afterlife in philosophy of religion. It is worth mentioning that the new book of Dan Brown, Origin, deals with these questions in a mystical-fictional-scientific way. Therefore, philosophy of religion again might become relevant even in the popular belletristic releases.

As we are all aware, philosophy of religion explains religious phenomena without personal engagement, based on rational arguments and some logical evidence. The basic strength of the analytical philosophy of religion is to provide sound argumentation as antidote for esoteric postmodern trends in thinking about language and reality. However, most of the analytical research in philosophy of religion looks more like a mathematical logic than philosophical treatises. The symbolic logic in the analytical tradition seems to be detached from the basic philosophical questions of origins, meaning and destiny. Philosophy of religion, therefore, can be done in a rigid and detached way without asking the question of meaning or purpose of human existence which would be worth living. This “logical” and “objective” approach is viewed as a safeguard against the one-sided, biased and narrow-minded position of value-laden theology or religious studies (another assumed strength of the philosophy of religion). Nevertheless, it distances itself from the existential and axiological questions raised by humanity in every generation. I will try to tackle only one of these questions.

How does the very knowledge of divine realities and logical investigation of God contribute to the question: what sort of life is worth living? In other words, how does a religious phenomenon impact a person or a student existentially on the level of the life lived, not just what type of reality correspond to the religious phenomenon (something like Wittgensteinian transcendence of realism and non-realism)? Let me unpack this.

Philosophy of religion belongs to the realm of study called humanities. After all, it is a philosophy. Most of the humanities in contemporary higher education do not deal with the question of meaning or purpose. Unfortunately, as they have become instrumental in obtaining knowledge for the specific professions, ancient and deep questions of humanum have been lost. Students are rarely confronted with the fundamental questions of life and their impact on student’s daily living. Though philosophy as the most general discipline of humanities sits in judgment of all phenomena, as its definition implies, it still can be taught without reference to meaning and purpose of life worth living.

It is a challenge to teach philosophy of religion as a relevant discipline that raises questions of meaning or purpose especially of the issues of whether life is worth living and/or what sort of life is worth living. Humanities, in general, avoid discussing these issues. Intelligibility of the religious phenomena has been questioned recently by Wittgenstein and others. This is, of course, an assumed weakness of philosophy of religion. However, I believe that the basic challenge is to find the way to teach students why this life is worth living or what kind of life is worth living in spite of the irresolvable and complex issue of the problem of evil or (non)existence of God. We can find the perfect fine-tuning argument in cosmology or irreducible complexity in biology, but, at the end of the day, why and how will this knowledge contribute to my personal life in order to have a permanent value of life worth living. Can philosophy of religion become value-laden? Maybe looking at only Christian perspective of philosophy of religion is insufficient. Perhaps we should adopt a comparative approach and explore other religious traditions more deeply to find the ultimate permanent value of this very life as worth living.

My suggestion is to look first at this issue from the perspective of inquiry. Every human being desires to know and strives to have its life examined as the Greek tradition taught us. A holistic approach to human life includes this inquiry. We are intelligent and curious beings. The very fact that philosophy of religion raises critical questions of origins, destiny, purposes, and meaning contributes to this holistic inquiry as part of life worth living/life properly lived. Whatever is the result of the investigation of religious phenomena within the study of the philosophy of religion what contributes to a life worth living is the very ability and desire to ask questions and explore the unknown phenomena. A life worth living is the life of expected flourishing that is the result of a search for a life a bit more than the ordinary. Asking questions, therefore, with openness towards life a bit more than the ordinary leads to a life worth living. These questions and potential answers transcend the instrumental approach to the study of human ideals like goodness, beauty and truth. The value of human being as intrinsically given or defined by the transcendence we are searching for can be found only in the phenomenological search for a life a bit more than the ordinary or a sort of life worth living. I also believe that whatever is the result of the study of the philosophy of religion with its goal to “define” the Ultimate Reality (whether it makes sense or not) this craving for the unknown and desire to experience a bit more than ordinary might provide the space for transcendence and recognition of the sacredness of human life. In my own experience the combination of openness to transcendence in the religious consciousness with rational inquiry of religious phenomena contributed to the discovery of a life worth living/life properly lived.

Philosophy of religion, therefore, if it is taught from the perspective of the quest for a sort of life worth living can stimulate students to search for the meaning and purpose of their lives and probably even open themselves to transcendence and that universal space of the ultimate meaning that contributes to a life worth living.

Eric Steinhart on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Eric Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Aristotle said philosophy begins in wonder. I take this to mean that philosophy at its best is driven by an unwavering curiosity, an all-consuming desire to make sense of the world, to explore its possibilities, and to know its truth. If norms and values are ideals to which we ought to aspire, then philosophers of religion ought to be curious about religion. What is religion? What does it mean to be religious? Religious behaviors are among the weirdest things that human animals do. Why do we do it?

At its best, philosophy of religion is curious about all the religions on earth. Do they fall into taxonomies? Is there a universal grammar of religions? Why are their phylogenetic relations? What do we learn about religion from fictional religions? There are, after all, many fictional religions, in books, in movies, in video games. It would be interesting for philosophers of religion to try to make up their own religions. And especially interesting to try to make up new types of religion. Such creativity is found in almost every other branch of philosophy. Why not in philosophy of religion?

A philosopher of religion ought to be curious about how religious emerge, live, and die. They ought to be curious about how religions evolve, how older religions persist into newer religions. Philosophers of science have been very interested in the ways that science changes. The phlogiston theory of combustion became the oxygen theory. The concept of God evolved. This is not simply a historical question: it is a question of the ways in which old conceptual structures evolve into new ones.

We are lucky to be alive at one of the most exciting times in the history of religion. All over the world, religions are changing. New religions are emerging. Every philosopher of religion should try to write an essay about the future of religion, including futures in which religion disappears, or evolves into something very different. What will religion look like in one hundred years? In five hundred years? In two thousand years? If artificial super-intelligence becomes reality, will people worship AIs? But our brains have not stopped evolving. Will worship itself become obsolete?

Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the ways in which philosophical ideas animate religions. Neoplatonism is alive and well in the United States. It is arguable that more people in the US are Neoplatonic than theistic. Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the revivals of pagan religious philosophies. A high percentage of Americans believe that physical things are animated by a spiritual energy. What does that mean? What are the arguments for or against the existence of this energy?

Driving through the San Rafael Swell, in the middle of the Utah desert, you fall into ecstasy: the rocks with their brilliant colors become transparent to an uncanny light. Chet Raymo said: when God is gone, everything becomes holy. Do stones shine? Are their colors broken open? Paul Tillich came close to saying something new when he wrote about revelation, and when he wrote about the ground of being. Almost. His work is half-free from theistic mythology. What would it be like to free it completely? Atheists have mystical experiences. What do their experiences mean? Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the spiritualities of nontheists.

Philosophers of religion ought to be curious about the ways religion is evolving into something new. The rise in the non-religious (the “Nones”) is accelerating across the West. But the Nones often identify as spiritual but not religious. What would it mean for religion to evolve into spirituality? How is therapeutic work on the self replacing worship? Spirituality appears in the New Age, in the revival of Stoicism, in the rapid growth of Westernized Buddhisms and Yoga, in lifehacking and self-tracking, even in the writings of the New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Are philosophers of religion even aware that Dawkins has written extensively about spirituality?

More than anything else, a philosopher of religion ought to stare straight into something spiritual or religious that they find utterly baffling. Read Gloria Anzaldua’s “Now Let Us Shift.” Participate in a Wiccan circle. Go on a Buddhist meditation retreat. Go to Burning Man. Drink ayahuasca with Santo Daime. Look at this light rising above the horizon. Listen to what it has to say. Write it down.